Jerusalem Beach

  • Review
By – August 16, 2021

A few of the pre­cise and often star­tling sto­ries in Iddo Gefen’s excel­lent debut col­lec­tion may remind some read­ers of Etgar Keret’s whim­si­cal approach to life’s absur­di­ties, but Gefen’s voice is assured­ly unique among younger Israeli writ­ers whose short sto­ries often seem to con­tain the deep emo­tion­al com­plex­i­ties of entire nov­els. A recip­i­ent of the Israeli Min­is­ter of Cul­ture Award, Gefen’s dis­qui­et­ing plots and sharply observed char­ac­ters are sub­tly inter­wo­ven with philo­soph­i­cal insights into mem­o­ry, con­scious­ness, and dream­worlds gleaned from his oth­er pro­fes­sion­al voca­tio, as a neu­rocog­ni­tive researcher into aug­ment­ed reality.

A great deal of Israeli lit­er­a­ture cen­ters on the tra­vails of fam­i­ly life, espe­cial­ly the destruc­tion of child­hood inno­cence in the after­math of war. In that regard, Gefen’s Jerusalem Beach is eas­i­ly as sharply obser­vant, ten­der and moral­ly imag­i­na­tive as any of the best works of his pre­de­ces­sors in pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. And through­out these thir­teen sto­ries, whose expan­sive range cov­ers vir­tu­al real­i­ties, the Mid­dle East, and the fur­thest reach­es of the solar sys­tem, Gefen proves adept at tak­ing read­ers into very dark places while offer­ing qui­et notes of com­pas­sion and consolation.

This skill is appar­ent from the very first sto­ry; few writ­ers in their ear­ly twen­ties would be expect­ed to write so imag­i­na­tive­ly from the per­spec­tive of an eighty-year-old grand­fa­ther, but that is pre­cise­ly what Gefen does in The Geri­atric Pla­toon,” a poignant sto­ry that con­sid­ers the psy­cho­log­i­cal dynam­ics of a bro­ken fam­i­ly from the shift­ing view­points of its estranged mem­bers, who, despite every­thing, fierce­ly love one anoth­er. Ulti­mate­ly their close bonds are not enough to pre­vent a hor­ri­fy­ing devel­op­ment. The tense and hard-hit­ting Nep­tune,” set in one of the country’s most remote out­posts, delves even more deeply into the bru­tal­ly cor­ro­sive nature of Israeli mil­i­tarism, remind­ing us of the coars­en­ing of young men’s lives and the sac­ri­fices that too many have come to take for granted.

A com­mon theme through­out these sto­ries is the char­ac­ters run­ning away, in search of them­selves or alter­na­tive lives, yet sur­pris­ing­ly Gefen nev­er repeats him­self. Else­where, the nar­ra­tives dis­play a prick­ly impa­tience with a per­va­sive form of Israeli cool, a fatal­is­tic sen­si­bil­i­ty that refus­es to ven­ture beyond the sta­tus quo. One char­ac­ter speaks for the author him­self: I can’t even begin to describe my dis­dain for people…who can’t com­plete a sen­tence with­out the words bro’ or dude.’ Who are sure they have an expla­na­tion for just about every­thing.” Oth­ers shrewd­ly sat­i­rize the lim­i­ta­tions of high-tech cul­ture in the lives of alien­at­ed char­ac­ters search­ing for authen­tic­i­ty, such as Three Hours from Berlin,” as sharp a cri­tique of what Face­book has done to us as one could hope for.

Per­haps most poignant of all, Lennon at the Cen­tral Bus Sta­tion,” the collection’s penul­ti­mate sto­ry, immers­es read­ers in Israel’s infa­mous crim­i­nal and migrant under­world, as expe­ri­enced by a lone­ly and fright­ened child. Read­ers drawn to com­plex por­tray­als of human desires, repul­sions, and attach­ments will be moved and thrilled by these sparkling sto­ries. Trau­ma­tized by war and oth­er loss­es, Gefen’s pro­found­ly flawed, rest­less, and yearn­ing char­ac­ters often strug­gle to ful­fill the con­vic­tion reached by a divorced moth­er in an ear­ly sto­ry: It’s not healthy for a per­son to just resign him­self to the role the world has fat­ed him with.” Read­ers seek­ing the next impor­tant voice in Israeli fic­tion will applaud Gefen’s Jerusalem Beach for its bold­ly spec­u­la­tive sce­nar­ios, wit­ty lan­guage, qui­et ironies, and pen­e­trat­ing truths. The Eng­lish trans­la­tion of his first nov­el, Mrs. Lilien­blum’s Cloud Fac­to­ry, will be out next year and, giv­en the excit­ing evi­dence of these sto­ries, grace­ful­ly trans­lat­ed by Daniel­la Zamir, many read­ers will undoubt­ed­ly look for­ward to that work with great anticipation.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.

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